Our ‘journey to the light’
Life is often thought of as a journey to the light. As a metaphor, light has been rich and informative.
Whether it be “the light at the end of the tunnel” or as a shaping image for an entire epoch, such as “The Enlightenment,” across the many centuries light has been used as a symbol for truth; it has been used to inform and guide others and ourselves.
People who report near death experiences make consistent references to great and beautiful lights, illuminating passageways to other worlds. They report seeing people bathed in light leading the way.
The peace and serenity of that light are such that people are often reluctant to be dragged back to our shared reality.
In Matthew Arnold’s epic poem, “The Gypsy Scholar,” he writes: “Roam on…roam on…the light we seek is shining still.” And we do roam on to a light that is inescapably ours.”
The light first captured me when I experienced the paintings of Joseph Turner, a great British romantic. Turner was captivated by the light, which for him translated as colour. He emerged as an innovative colourist. When Turner was dying, he said to his wife: “God is light…God is the sun.”
Sir Isaac Newton first turned that prism on the windowsill until a spectacular rainbow flooded the window’s casement; a spectral rainbow opened the world to a wonderful intellectual approach to color and light.
Thanks to Newton, light traveling at 186,000 miles per second is our cosmic measuring stick.
The poet Goethe saw colour itself as a metaphor and the relationship between colour and the emotions were of particular interest to him.
Passion, pain, courage, joy — all of which were manifested in gradations of light as they poured across the pages of Wordsworth’s verse, across a canvas painted by Delacroix or reverberated in concert halls with the music of Beethoven.
Our education is a journey to such creative lights, and as we write, we splash colours on a canvas, work, pray, whistle or sing and we discover what is in us by bringing it all out (the word education derives from the Latin “educare” which means to lead out).
We become thinkers, musicians, scientists, artists and our paths with heart are illuminated by the light. All the while the darkness of arrogance, ignorance and dogma attempts to blot out such life-defining, life-affirming light. Jacob Bronowski writes in The Atlantic: “Consider the concentration camps and crematoria of Auschwitz, where people were turned into numbers. Into the ponds of Auschwitz were flushed the ashes of millions of people, but that was not done by gas … no, it was done in the dark, by arrogance, ignorance and dogma. The light cures us of the itch for absolute knowledge and absolute power.”
Intellect, without a delicate sense of mystery, without the light of compassion can prove as lethal in the long turn as it may be beneficent in the short run.
Is this not one essential theme in Melville’s great novel, “Moby Dick?” Captain Ahab of the Pequod represents dark-obsessed intellectual persistence while the narrator, Ishmael, exemplifies the sensitive, light-loving observer, the witness to great evil who yet maintains a posture of reverence toward a world that does not spare him “ponderous planets of unwaning woe,” but furnishes him with “eternal wildness of joy.”
The tragedy of Moby Dick and much of humankind lies in the seductive dominance of the dark intellect as an instrument of conquest over the bright light of wisdom as a means of harmony.
And in the light, we sense the central importance of caritas.
Novelist James Baldwin speaks most eloquently about such a commitment and the light.
He writes: “For nothing is fixed forever and forever; it is not fixed. The earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down the rock.
Generations do not cease to be born and we are responsible to them because they are the only witnesses we have.
The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other and the children cling to us.
The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with each other, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.”